Our world has a strange relationship with authority. We saw this in the “Occupy” movement of a few years ago. Formally, everyone had the same role, but inevitably, “leading voices” popped up and made sure the countercultural drum circles beat to the same rhythm. Turns out that when everybody’s following the lead nonconformist, irony is not lacking.
Modern Christians have had their own struggle to understand authority. One of the most frequently misunderstood passages in Scripture, for example, is Ephesians 5:21, where Paul calls for “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Some commentators have understood this verse to call for “mutual submission,” such that both husbands and wives place themselves under one another’s authority.
Ephesians 5:21 actually calls for believers to recognize and respectfully follow God-ordained authorities. Wherever you find proper authority, Paul is saying, follow it. This view makes sense of the passage that follows. Ephesians 5:22–33 teaches that God has called a woman to submit to her husband and a man to love his wife. The woman images the church, which honors Christ as its authority (vv. 22–24); the man images Christ, who self-sacrificially leads and provides for His bride (vv. 25–28).
Much more than one’s felt needs, love language, or personal preferences, these are the most important words in the universe for building a God-glorifying marriage. The husband, like Christ, is the head of his wife. His wife recognizes this headship and responds graciously to it by following him, just as the church does not rule or lead Jesus but follows Him all the way to glory.
We know that this interpretation makes sense because the opening verses of chapter 6 spell out a second relationship predicated on authority and submission dynamics. Children must “obey” their father and mother (Eph. 6:1). This nonnegotiable role depends upon the recognition of and response to God-constituted authority. Ephesians 5:22–33 and 6:1–4 are linked; they unpack the principle of Ephesians 5:21 by showing how believers may act upon it.
We are on sure biblical footing here. Without exception, the Greek word for “submission,” hupotassō, always signals obedience to God-given authority. Jesus submitted to the authority of His parents (Luke 2:51); the demons were subject to the disciples (Luke 10:17); citizens are subject to government authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5); the universe is subject to Christ (1 Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:22); Christ is subject to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). We could go on.
As we can see, believers welcome the opportunity of submitting to proper leaders. Biblical submission never means lemming-like mindlessness. It actually signifies the opposite—a joyful, wholehearted commitment to follow a worthy figure. Submission is not dependent on perfect performance, either. As church members called to submit to church leaders, for example, we will glimpse sin in our leaders’ lives (1 Cor. 16:15–16; 1 Peter 5:5).
Submission to God-constituted authority does not come and go. It is the very essence of Christian faith and discipleship. When we repent and believe, we do nothing other than confess to a holy God, “You are right, and I am wrong; I submit to you.” The fundamental posture of a believer toward God is submission (Heb. 12:9; James 4:7).
The home and the church are God-made fields in which submission may bloom. In the home, men must lead, and women must comprehensively encourage and welcome this leadership. Submission does not start only when a decision is made; it begins long before. In the church, members must submit to their elders, gladly embracing this leadership.
In both contexts, submission is not mere agreement at the final point of a decision-making process. It is not a trump card that husbands and elders may play, either. It is an all-of-life reality, a posture, an approach, and a terrific privilege. If Jesus Himself gladly submitted to His Father, even when that submission called for Him to die for the church, how can we not joyfully follow suit? How can we not submit to God and honor His Word’s authority-submission dynamics throughout our lives?
We know that this sounds like death to modern ears. To those given the gift of hearing, however, the opportunity to submit to God is the very word of life.